CNN Poll: Few think Trump is being treated the same as other defendants

Few think Trump is being treated the same as other defendants

As the first criminal prosecution of a former American president began just 13% nationwide feel Donald Trump is being treated the same as other criminal defendants, a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS finds. Most of the country was divided over whether he is being treated more harshly (34%) or more leniently (34%) than other defendants.

The poll, which began fielding a few days after the trial’s jury selection phase kicked off April 15, finds only 44% of Americans express confidence that the jury chosen for the case will be able to reach a fair verdict, while 56% more skeptical that a fair outcome is in the cards. More see Trump’s behavior during the trial thus far as inappropriate (42%) than appropriate (25%), with about a third saying they haven’t heard enough to say.

Those assessments of how things are playing out in the courtroom come as a rising share of Americans say the charges in the ongoing trial – related to allegedly falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments to an adult film actress Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election – are irrelevant to his fitness for the presidency even if true (45% say so now compared with 39% last summer, before he became the presumptive Republican nominee for president).

About three-quarters of voters currently backing Trump against President Joe Biden in the 2024 election say they will stick with him even if he is convicted of a crime, while 24% of Trump’s backers say a conviction might cause them to reconsider their support. Trump is charged in four separate cases, and the survey question asked about being convicted of a crime without specifying a charge. The group that might reconsider amounts to about 12% of all registered voters in the poll, more than enough to make a difference in a close contest should he face conviction in any of the four trials he may face between now and Election Day.

The political impact of a possible conviction is difficult to predict, but a look at the characteristics of those Trump backers who say they could reconsider offers some insight. They tend to be younger than other Trump supporters (64% are younger than 50 compared with 37% of those who would not reconsider), are less likely to be White (49% are people of color compared with 17% of those who would not reconsider), are more apt to report being Biden voters in 2020 (20% of them say they backed Biden in 2020 vs. 6% of those who would not reconsider) and are likelier to acknowledge that Biden legitimately won enough votes to win the presidency four years ago (63% vs. 22% among those who would not reconsider). They are also more apt to be political independents (49% vs. 31%) and ideologically moderate (50% vs. 38%).

In short, they tend to be members of groups that typically tilt Democratic but where Biden has been underperforming in early polls on a matchup with Trump. The Trump backers who might reconsider, though, aren’t necessarily guaranteed to back Biden should Trump face conviction: Asked in a separate question earlier in the poll whether they would consider supporting Biden, 81% of those Trump supporters who say they might reconsider their choice if he’s convicted say there’s no chance they would vote for the current president.

More broadly, a majority of Americans continue to say that the charges in each of the four cases against Trump cast at least some doubts on his fitness for the presidency if true. Pluralities of more than 4 in 10 overall say that if true, charges related to Trump’s role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol (47%) and efforts to overturn the 2020 election (44%) should disqualify him from the presidency entirely.

But views of the relevance of the cases to Trump’s fitness for office appear to be shifting somewhat. Alongside the increased share saying the hush money charges are not relevant to his suitability for the presidency, there’s been a small increase in the share saying charges related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election and those related to classified documents found at Trump’s home are irrelevant to his fitness for the presidency should they prove true (37% now say that each of those sets of charges are not relevant, up from 33% last summer).

The shift across these three cases comes mostly among independents who lean toward the Republican Party and those who don’t lean toward either party. Partisans’ impressions of how much each of the cases matter to Trump’s fitness for the presidency are fairly locked in, and independents who lean Democratic have shifted only slightly. Considering the hush money charges, about three-quarters of Republicans say they’re irrelevant now, roughly even with last summer, and among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, it’s held relatively steady around 13%. But among independents who lean Republican, the share calling those charges not relevant to Trump’s fitness has climbed from 57% to 73%, and the share of true independents saying the same has risen from 29% to 45%.

Considering the current trial, most Americans feel Trump has at minimum acted unethically, but fewer are convinced his actions were criminal: About a third say Trump’s actions related to his business records regarding those hush money payments were illegal (33%), with another 33% calling it unethical but not illegal. Just 12% overall say he did nothing wrong in the case.  About 1 in 5, 21%, say they aren’t sure.

Those views are similar to how Americans felt about the case shortly after the charges were announced last spring, when 37% said Trump’s actions regarding payments to Stormy Daniels were illegal, 33% unethically and 10% that he did nothing wrong at all.

A look at partisan divides on Trump’s trial

Views about the trial and its possible outcome divide along party lines, though independents are notably checked out on the trial itself.

Most Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say Trump is being treated more leniently than other defendants by the criminal justice system (61%), while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents largely say he’s being treated more harshly than others (67%). Independents who don’t lean toward either party tilt toward his treatment being more lenient (27%) than harsh (15%).

Lack of confidence in the selected jury to reach a fair verdict is deepest among Republicans and Republican-leaning Americans (37% say they have no confidence at all), but even among Democrats and Democratic-leaners, 40% say they have little or no confidence in the jury’s ability to reach a fair verdict.

A broad majority of Democratic-aligned Americans say Trump’s behavior during the trial thus far has been inappropriate (72%), though Republicans haven’t leapt to his defense. Only 46% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump’s conduct has been appropriate, with 15% saying it’s been inappropriate and 39% that they haven’t heard enough to say.

Overall, about half of all Americans (49%) say they’re following news about the trial very or somewhat closely, with Democratic-aligned Americans most apt to be following that closely (58%), followed by Republican-aligned adults (46%) and independents who don’t lean either way least attentive (35%).

The CNN poll was conducted by SSRS from April 18-23 among a random national sample of 1,212 adults drawn from a probability-based panel. Surveys were either conducted online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.